Sometimes Mabel Osgood Wright could be found behind a camera snapping beautiful photographs of nature. Other times she spent writing books for children and adults and helping them to better appreciate the beauty of the natural world. In between, she found peace while gardening in her backyard. Best known for founding the Connecticut Audubon Society and the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Conn., Wright dedicated her life to preservation and the promotion of natural beauty.
Mabel Osgood was born in 1859 in New York City, the youngest of three daughters of Samuel and Ellen Osgood. She attended private school in the city but her father discouraged her from attending Cornell Medical School. Though he did not believe that women belonged in the medical profession, he did believe that young women should be educated and exposed to ideas. He introduced his daughters to artists and writers and allowed them to engage in intellectual discussions with prominent thinkers. He also built Mosswood, the family’s country home in Fairfield, CT on a large piece of land that featured beautiful gardens. It was during her times at Mosswood that Mabel Osgood learned to appreciate the outdoors and developed her keen observation skills, skills that traveled back to the city with her and made her an attentive city dweller. When she was just 16, she published her first nature essay in the New York Evening Post.
In 1884, Mabel Osgood married James Osborne Wright, a British art and rare books dealer. Wright’s father had passed away unexpectedly in 1880 and, after living in Europe for some years, Wright and her husband returned to the U.S. to maintain her father’s homes in New York and Fairfield. During the 1890s, she began to record some of her reflections and observations and began her prolific career as a nature writer. She published several important books including The Friendship of Nature (1894), Birdcraft (1895), and Flowers and Ferns in Their Haunts (1901). As she continued her career, her writing began to blend social commentary and fiction, as well as an autobiography called My New York (1926). Wright believed that educating young people to recognize the value of nature and preservation was the key to conservation, and she wrote many stories for children. Her hope was that these stories would bring a greater appreciation of nature to a new generation being raised in a more urban environment. Some of her educational stories included Tommy-Anne and the Three Hearts (1896) and Wabeno and the Magician (1899). She was as prolific a photographer as she was a writer and often Wright’s own photographs served as the illustrations for her books. She was also an active member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut.
In Fairfield, Wright became involved in efforts to revive the original Audubon Society at the state level. First established in 1886, the national organization had been completely disbanded by 1896. The Connecticut Audubon Society, which Wright founded in 1896, was only the second state organization created. Wright sat on the advisory board of the National Commission, which was formed to oversee the state organizations. She is also credited with helping to revive the national Audubon movement as editor and writer for Bird-Lore, the precursor to Audubon Magazine. In addition to her work with the Audubon Society movement, Wright designed and constructed the Birdcraft Sancutary within the grounds of the Connecticut Audubon Society’s property. She named the sanctuary after one of her most successful books, and it was the first bird preserve of its kind. Within ten years of its opening in 1914, Birdcraft received over 10,000 visitors and was home to 32 different nesting bird species. By the 1940s, the sanctuary was home to more than 150 species and a museum and education center had been added. The site continues to be visited by ever-increasing numbers of school groups as Wright had envisioned. The Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary was officially designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993 and is now a site on the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.
Mabel Osgood Wright died in Fairfield in 1935.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.